Category Archives: Shakespeare Authorship Question

Bio-degradable Shakespeare

While looking through playbills for past Shakespeare Theatre Company productions, I came upon a mystery that involves a big flip-flop, and no, I’m not talking about a size 13 beach sandal.

The mystery is about something one would think STC takes very seriously, namely, the true identity of William Shakespeare.

There is, sir, a doubt

The novelist B. Travers once said, “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” For many years the playbills for STC productions reflected that philosophy. From 1986-2007, only one playbill, in 1995, contained a Shakespeare biography.

Another Shakespeare biography appeared in playbills from 2008 to 2014. Remarkably, that bio raised doubts about whether the poet-playwright was the same Shakespeare who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. The one-page text began by observing:

No man’s life has been the subject of more speculation than William Shakespeare’s. While Shakespearean scholars have dedicated their lives to the search for evidence, the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is. [Emphasis added].

After a brief account of the Stratford man’s birth, marriage, and children, the bio stated:

What we do not know is how the young Shakespeare came to travel to London and how he first came to the stage. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that in the years between 1582 and 1592 someone calling himself William Shakespeare became involved in the London theatre scene and was a principal actor with one of several repertory companies [Emphasis added].

This bio began appearing in STC playbills in 2008.

The concluding paragraph described doubts about Shakespeare’s identity in even more direct terms:

In the 1800s, his plays were so popular that many refused to believe that an actor from Stratford had written them. To this day some believe that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays; others argue that Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, was the man. Still others contend that Sir Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe penned the lines attributed to Shakespeare. Whether the plays were written by Shakespeare the man or Shakespeare the myth, it is clear that no other playwright has made such a significant and lasting contribution to the English language [Emphasis added].

In 2014 much of this bio suddenly melted into thin air.

He’s a disease that must be cut away

During the 2014-2015 season, STC produced three Shakespeare plays: both parts of Henry the Fourth in March and April 2014, and As You Like It in October and November 2014.

In the middle of that season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited. It went from describing doubts about the playwright’s identity (April 2014) to expressing no doubts (October 2014).

During the 2014-2015 season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited.

Like a surgeon with a scalpel, the editor(s) removed all traces of uncertainty about Shakespeare’s identity, deleting from the first paragraph the phrases “the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is” and “someone calling himself William Shakespeare,” and adding “we know a great deal of information about Shakespeare’s life—far more than that of any of his contemporaries.” The editor(s), as if excising a tumor, also cut out the bulk of the last paragraph which named alternate candidates.

Here’s a redline version of the edits:

More than one-fourth of the previous bio disappeared. Ever since, STC playbills have included the no-doubt-about-it bio.

Sir, it is a mystery

What explains STC’s flip-flop? And why did it wait seven years to do it?

I noticed the altered bio in 2014, but only recently discovered what, at least in part, likely caused the change. It has to do with events that occurred in September 2014, just before the revised text appeared in October 2014.

What trust is in these times?

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, is a staunch defender of traditional Shakespeare biography. The Trust owns the house believed to be Shakespeare’s birthplace, which each year attracts hundreds of thousands visitors and generates millions of dollars.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the Trust would judge a playbill of a major U.S. theater company raising issues about Shakespeare’s true identity—doubts that strike at the core of the Trust’s raison d’être. And it seems likely that the Trust, if it had the opportunity, would do something about it.

In the summer of 2014, the Trust sent a team across the pond on a ‘Shakespeare on the Road’ tour. Here’s how the Trust described it:

In July and August, our team visited a range of Shakespeare festivals across the length and breadth of the US (with one notable Canadian incursion). We touched down on the 4th July at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City and ended in Washington DC in early September. Over 63 days, we traveled over 10,000 miles (mostly by road), saw 42 Shakespeare productions and interviewed hundreds of the people who – year in, year out – make Shakespeare happen across the continent.

The material we gathered will be used for multiple outcomes: podcasts, radio and online documentaries, a co-authored book and solo-authored chapters and case studies. The road trip was mapped on this digital platform with roughly one hundred interviews, photos and short blogs to give a sense of the journey as it unfolded.

STC was the Washington, DC theater the Trust’s team visited in September 2014.

Around this same time, at an event in Washington to which 200 potential patrons were invited, the Trust launched Shakespeare’s Birthplace America, “a not-for-profit foundation that promotes and supports the works of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the United States.”

The Trust’s team likely would have cringed at the bio in STC’s then current playbill, which included phrases such as someone calling himself William Shakespeare and named alternate candidates such as De Vere and Marlowe (neither of whom were born in Stratford-upon-Avon).

It’s difficult to believe that the Trust wouldn’t have discussed the bio with STC in September 2014, or even before. STC revised the playbill for its very next production, in October 2014.

The timing and surgical nature of the edits—to delete any notion that Shakespeare was anyone but the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon—suggests the Trust played a role in the bio’s revision.

STC, of course, has the right to change the content of its playbills and has no obligation to give the reasons.

In this case, however, for the sake of its credibility, STC might consider explaining its flip-flop, so patrons can understand the merits of why, after seven years, it suddenly stopped believing that doubts regarding Shakespeare’s identity were worth mentioning.

Another choice would be for STC to return to its earlier practice, in line with the B. Travers school of thought, and drop the Shakespeare bio from its playbills altogether.

The Winter’s Tale: Shakespeare Wronged

Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare “invented the human.” But the reverse is also true: humans invented Shakespeare.

And they have done him wrong.

Take, for instance,  how scholars have criticized Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

For decades they concluded that the great playwright made significant blunders in the play. However, it was the scholars, not Shakespeare, who erred.

Italian architect, painter, and sculptor Julio Romano (1499-1546)

The Winter’s Tale is the only play in which Shakespeare refers to another artist by name. In Act Five, Scene 2, a character describes Hermione’s statue as

a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape [ . . . ]

Scholars accused Shakespeare of ignorance since, according to them, Romano was an architect and painter, but not a sculptor.

One can still see Romano’s sculpture of the resurrected Christ gracing Baldassare Castiglione’s tomb in Matua, Italy.

The scholars were mistaken. In 1873, Karl Elze set things right. In his Essays On Shakespeare, Elze showed that Giorgio Vasari, an artist and biographer of other 16th century artists, described Romano as a sculptor in the first edition of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550.

I was thus surprised some weeks ago to find the Wikipedia entry for Romano flat-out stating that Shakespeare incorrectly called him a sculptor (the entry has since been corrected).

Did Shakespeare flunk geography?

Also wrong were scholarly conclusions that Shakespeare messed up the geography of The Winter Tale’s setting by giving Bohemia a coastline. As Richard Paul Roe explains in his brilliant book, Shakespeare’s Guide To Italy, the political boundaries of Bohemia once included territory adjacent to the Adriatic Sea.

And that’s not all.

Scholars also said The Winter’s Tale incorrectly places the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when it’s actually located on the mainland of Greece.

However, the short scene (Act III, Scene 1) that gives rise to this issue takes place after the characters have already visited the oracle. As Roe explains, the characters in that scene have returned from the oracle and are back in Sicily, and the “temple” they are describing is the Temple of Segesta, not the Oracle of Delphi.

The pitfall of biographical assumptions about Shakespeare

Traditional Shakespeare scholarship assumes the Bard was a man from Stratford-upon-Avon whose education was limited to grammar school and who never stepped outside England. This helps explain his “mistakes” about Romano, Bohemia, and Delphi.

These assumptions are part of the story line about the Stratford man, which also has him marrying an older woman after getting her pregnant. Stephen Greenblatt, in Will in the World, thus writes:

Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and a writer. Most couples, he may have told himself, are mismatched, even couples marrying for love; you should never marry in haste; a young man should not marry an older woman; a marriage under compulsion—“wedlock force”—is a hell. And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, that the very dream is a threat.

Shakespeare may have told himself too that his marriage to Anne [Hathaway] was doomed from the beginning. […]

Greenblatt is inventing Shakespeare. Nothing in the Stratford man’s known biography supports how Greenblatt reads his mind on the subject of marriage and then grafts the results onto The Winter’s Tale and other plays.

These examples of traditional scholarly views of The Winter’s Tale can make one reasonably skeptical of orthodox assumptions about who wrote Shakespeare. Indeed, such skepticism is rising. The University of London has begun offering an online course, “Introduction to Who Wrote Shakespeare,” which challenges those assumptions.

At present,  The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare has over 4,000 signatories, which include Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Irons, and Michael York, and retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.

In years to come, as the Shakespeare whom humans have invented continues to be challenged and undone, one can expect discussion and analysis of the plays to be less tied to the biography of the Stratford man.

One small example: I recently attended a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Folger Theatre, and was pleased to see that the playbill repeated none of the assertions about Shakespeare’s “mistakes.” In fact, the playbill provided no biographical information about Shakespeare at all.

Where’s Shakespeare?

Rape Of Lucrece, by J. Ber (1724). The watercolor is so delicate, the exhibit displays a reproduction.  Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Painting Shakespeare,” the current exhibit at the  Folger Shakespeare Library,  includes some amazing paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.  My favorite: Rape of Lucrece by the 18th century French artist, J. Ber. The smallest painting in this not-to-be-missed exhibit, J. Ber’s wonderful composition of color shines like a stained glass window.

“Painting Shakespeare” runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit also displays several paintings of Shakespeare himself. But there’s one problem: none of them are thought definitively to be him. According to one of the exhibit’s information plaques:

The Zuccaro Shakespeare. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Only two portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as genuine likenesses: the engraving on the title page of the First Folio . . . and the sculpture on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are undeniably dull, making contenders such as [the Zuccaro Shakespeare, shown here at the left] an attractive alternative . . . [W]e now know the artist was not Frederico Zuccaro (1540/41-1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy moustache, pointy beard, and small earring, and the inscription ‘William Shakespeare’ to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.”

So, no painting of Shakespeare we’re sure is him? Now, that’s curious.

We have genuine paintings of a whole slew of 16th and 17th century English poets and playwrights—such as Ben Johnson, John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Christopher Marlowe—but none of the greatest of them all. Zounds! Why not? Where’s Shakespeare?

It’s a question “Painting Shakespeare” doesn’t answer. But wait! Maybe the Folger does have a true portrait of Shakespeare after all. It’s called The Ashbourne Portrait and it hangs in the Founders’ Room at the library. I once saw it on a tour.

The Ashbourne Portrait. Is it Shakespeare? It might be.

The three-quarter length portrait of an Elizabethan man in high ruff, his fingers gently clasping a book, his wrist supported by a skull, was discovered in 1847 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire and identified as Shakespeare. The Folger acquired the painting in 1931 and displayed it as a portrait of the Bard, despite analysis showing that the picture had been overpainted to look like the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio.

Left: Ashbourne Portrait. Right: Droeshout engraving.

Most notably, the hairline had been raised to make the Ashbourne sitter look significantly more bald. One can still see the shadow of his overpainted hair.

You decide: does the face in the Ashbourne Portrait (center) more resemble Edward de Vere (on left) or Hugh Hamersley (on right)?

In 1940, an infra-red photographic analysis of the Ashbourne Portrait confirmed that the portrait had been altered in several ways and supported a conclusion that the sitter was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. For the Folger, this wasn’t good news: Edward de Vere is the top alternative candidate for the man who wrote Shakespeare.

Over the next thirty-nine years a series of controversial events (including a lawsuit) led to the Folger’s announcement, in 1979, that the Ashbourne Portrait was neither Shakespeare nor Edward de Vere . . . but Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was the Mayor of London in 1627!

The Ashbourne Portrait has a fascinating story behind it (and, apparently, on top of it, thanks to to the overpainting) so it’s a shame it’s not part of the current exhibit. But the Folger’s decision to keep it out of sight is understandable. The Shakespeare Authorship Question can spark contentious debate—take a look at the one Alexander Waugh and Sir Jonathan Bate just had—and I imagine the Folger, realizing this, deemed it too controversial (even risky) to place the portrait in public view.

Moreover, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is not what “Painting Shakespeare” is about. Indeed, as far as I know, the Folger has never presented a program or exhibit about the authorship issue. Perhaps it should.

The Bard On Trial: Did Shakespeare Kill The Heroic Ideal?

The Stratford man’s thin biography unravels Professor Edmundson’s case against Shakespeare

Is Shakespeare an assassin? The answer is no.

In his book Self and Soul (2015), University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson charges Shakespeare with a murder of sorts: “Repeatedly Shakespeare kills the Homeric hero (or his descendent) on the stage. Then he revives that hero again . . . for one sacrifice more in another brilliant play.”

Mr. Edmundson describes two versions of the Western hero, one embodied in Achilles, the other in Hector:

“Homer’s Achilles wants to attain eternal life in the minds and hearts of other men, warriors in particular. What matters to him is his reputation as a fighter, and he will risk anything to enlarge it. […] Hector is the model for what later generations would call the citizen soldier. […] Though he is a formidable warrior, Hector is also an accomplished statesman and loving husband and father.”

Mr. Edmundson clearly laments the fading of the heroic ideal in contemporary culture: “There are still true warriors in our culture, still men and women who would emulate Hector or Achilles, but there are not many of them, and there are probably fewer all the time.”

Shakespeare, according to Mr. Edmundson, is largely to blame. The Bard’s crime was to help demolish the Homeric ideal and clear the way for “a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more.”

Enough Flaws to Go Around . . . and the Exceptional Exception

To back up his charge, Mr. Edmundson analyzes six Shakespeare tragedies in depth. Each one, he argues, is the playwright’s attempt to kill the heroic ideal by using a flawed martial hero as the protagonist.

For instance, he believes that Othello—a confident, successful soldier on the battlefield— falls victim to a maddening uncertainty over Desdemona’s love. Similarly, Macbeth, another warrior-hero, loses control as Lady Macbeth drives him to prove his manhood by murdering a king. For Mr. Edmundson Troilus and Cressida paints a demeaning portrait of Achilles (“a besotted fool”) and Hector (“a fraud”), as well as other heroes who appear in The Iliad. He draws similar conclusions about Titus Andronicus (“once valiant” hero becomes “mad, disfigured animal”), Julius Caesar (“a timid, superstitious, uxorious man, vain and befuddled”), and Coriolanus (“emotionally, a large child” whose mother “dominates and oppresses him”).

In Mr. Edmunson’s view, the courage shown by Shakespeare’s war heroes merely compensates for their psychological defects. According to the professor, “Shakespeare’s objective, one suspects, is not the destruction of an individual figure, like Othello. Shakespeare’s objective is the destruction of an ideal.”

In essence, the professor argues that Shakespeare attacks the heroic ideal by picking on battlefield champions and giving them deep psychological flaws.

Granted, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and other martial heroes in Shakespeare have such flaws, but so do other main characters who are not martial heroes.

For example, consider jealousy arising from a character’s misperceiving things and leaping to conclusions. In Othello, one of the plays Mr. Edmundson discusses in detail, the hero’s misunderstanding about a handkerchief feeds his jealousy that drives the tragedy. But Leontes in A Winter’s Tale suffers a similar flaw, and so does Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing. The consequences for them are less tragic yet nevertheless unpleasant. Leontes is a king and Claudio a lord, but neither is a soldier. Mr. Edmundson cites other examples of flawed characters who are not warriors (e.g. Polonius, Duke Theseus, Shylock, and the Duke of Milan).

In short, Shakespeare doesn’t single out heroes of war.

If one wishes to generalize, the better conclusion is that Shakespeare intended to show how humans, regardless of job category, misinterpret reality and jump to false conclusions, not that the heroic ideal must be discarded. In the world to which Shakespeare holds up a mirror, men can be martial heroes, but they’re still human. Why shouldn’t they have the same flaws exhibited by characters in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances?

And then there are the exceptions which Mr. Edmundson himself acknowledges do not support his charge that the Bard is the assassin of heroism.

The exceptional exception is Hamlet. Mr. Edmundson finds Hamlet to be “often a true thinker” and “a warrior, also, though a rather conflicted one,” and Hamlet’s tragedy as “the destruction of hope for humanity to live for principles larger than the given individual.” But if Mr. Edmundson is correct in his overall thesis, it would make no sense for Shakespeare to create Prince Hamlet—his greatest character, perhaps the greatest in all literature—if Shakespeare was intent on destroying noble ideals.

Shakespeare unabashedly promotes the heroic ideal, rather than destroys it, in Henry V. One need only recall Henry’s Saint Crispin Day speech, a brave call to arms that urges men to join him in sacrificing their lives for their country.

Mr. Edmundson’s answer? King Henry is only acting, faking the role of leader and hero. Personal gain is what motivates Henry, not the greater good. This interpretation, however, simply does not square with Henry’s actual words, which are a direct assault on materialism in favor of sacrifice for a noble cause:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow [enough]
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

Shakespeare’s motive

Concerning Shakespeare the man, Mr. Edmundson is a Stratfordian. That means he believes that the Bard was a grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon. The name of that grain merchant, incidentally, was Shakspere, not Shakespeare, and doubts persist whether Shakspere was the great poet-playwright. The doubters include Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough and former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens. Such doubters believe ‘Shakespeare’ was the real author’s pseudonym.

To be clear, in this post I’ll refer to the man from Stratford as Shakspere, and the person who wrote the plays (whoever he was) as Shakespeare. Remember, Mr. Edmundson assumes Shakspere and Shakespeare are the same person, regardless of the name difference.

Mr. Edmundson finds Shakespeare’s motive for killing the heroic ideal in the biography of Shakspere, the man from Stratford. Citing Shakspere’s “career as an actor and a businessman,” Mr. Edmundson observes:

“[Shakspere/Shakespeare] writes so much and so well in part because he writes with the concentrated energy of a world-transforming movement. He expresses—in a sense he is—the power of a rising middle class, a class tired of the arrogance of nobility but still fascinated by what is (or what might be) noble. This is a class that disdains high heroic honor but delights to see it rendered—and undone. […] How could an upwardly aspiring merchant’s son from the provinces not sustain a measure of resentment for aristocrats and their pretensions? Or, more to the point, how could the middle class of London—rising, prospering—not take delight in watching one or another of their antagonists being undone?”

With his assumption that Shakspere was Shakespeare, Mr. Edmundson concludes that the playwright’s motive behind most of the tragedies was a desire to destroy the heroic ideal—and the arrogant, noble class to which it belongs—so the middle class could rise and flourish with its pragmatic, self-centered, materialistic culture. But just how strong is the evidence for that motive?

Shakspere’s biography

The professor’s argument rests fundamentally on two assumptions: first, that Shakspere was Shakespeare; and second, that Shakspere, a member of “the rising middle class,” had a proverbial axe to grind with the nobility. The first assumption is doubtful, but even if it’s accepted, the second assumption lacks what lawyers call a foundation for evidence.

The truth is, even if Shakspere was a “businessman,” we have no clue what he thought about the noble class.

Aside from six signatures, we have nothing written in Shakspere’s hand. We don’t know whether he attended any university, or even grammar school for that matter. Shakspere’s will makes no mention of books. We don’t know whether he read The Iliad—or any other book for that matter. If Mr. Edmundson has direct, tangible evidence that Shakspere wrote anything other than his own name (which he spelled Shakspere, never Shakespeare), or went to school, read books, or otherwise was familiar with Plutarch’s heroes, I would very much like to see that evidence. Otherwise, the motive he assigns to Shakespeare lacks a foundation, and his charge against Shakespeare should be dropped.

Shakespeare: Nobility’s Friend or Foe?

Mr. Edmundson seems to forget that, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Crown controlled the press. Freedom of expression, as we know, did not exist. If Shakespeare really was trying to undo the nobility, it is difficult to imagine nobles of Queen Elizabeth’s court tolerating their undoing in play after play, or not catching on to Shakespeare’s attacks while his “middle class” audience understood his motives perfectly well.

Shakespeare first won fame with his long poem, Venus and Adonis, which was followed by a second poem, The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a rising nobleman in Elizabeth’s court. Southampton is also widely regarded as the “lovely youth” of the Sonnets. If Shakespeare truly was bent on attacking the noble class, it would be extremely incongruous for him to dedicate poems to a nobleman and praise him in poetry, yet then assault the nobility in plays.

Mr. Edmundson argues that Shakespeare is writing for a rising middle class, but that’s difficult to see in the way he portrays commoners. Most often, commoners in Shakespeare are, in a word, silly. As Joseph Sobran observes: “Shakespeare typically makes his common characters buffoons. He presents them in an entirely different way from his noble characters. They are usually illiterate and illogical. They speak in malapropisms and mangled classical references. Their inmost thoughts are preposterous.” Following Mr. Edmundson’s way of thinking, Shakespeare takes aim at commoners as much as he targets nobles.

And if Shakespeare truly disdained nobles and wrote to support the interests of a rising middle class, why didn’t he ever write a play featuring a commoner as the hero, someone who overcomes obstacles nobles have put in his way? Shakespeare in fact did just the opposite: in the Induction scenes of Taming of the Shrew, a nobleman makes a total fool out of Sly, a commoner.

Seeing the plays through the lens of Shakspere of Stratford’s (scant) biography leads to distorted analyses about Shakespeare, such as the conclusion that King Henry the Fifth was faking his heroism. Such an approach demeans Shakespeare and does a disservice to his audience. Stratfordians would do better discussing what Shakespeare wrote leaving aside unfounded speculation about his socioeconomic motives.

America’s Shakespeare . . . And Dissing An American Icon

Works of Shakspere
Beginning in the late 18th century, and throughout many decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bard’s name was often spelled ‘Shakspeare’ or ‘Shakspere.’ The Folger exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” doesn’t explain why. Shown here is a Funk & Wagnalls edition from 1927.

I can see using Shakespeare to advertise a bookstore, but really, a sewing machine company?

Well, actually, yes. The New Home Sewing Machine Co. used Shakespeare for a 1890 promotion, which is part of the fun of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” on display through July 24.

It’s a fine exhibit that shouldn’t be missed. However, “America’s Shakespeare” does contain one blatant error that’s like a smear on an otherwise neat, handwritten letter. I’ll come to that later.

The exhibit shows how Shakespeare has permeated American culture over the centuries. One standout item is a recommended reading list penned by Thomas Jefferson that includes Shakespeare. Zoom forward to the 20th century and you’ll see Shakespeare in the movies and on television, even to the far reaches of Gilligan’s Island.

The exhibit displays posters for Shakespeare performances that span nearly 200 years. Quite a few of these placards spell the Bard’s name as ‘Shakspeare’ rather than ‘Shakespeare.’ The exhibit doesn’t explain why.

The short explanation: Some 18th and 19th century scholars concluded that the Bard’s real name was Shakspeare. Why? Because his surviving signatures show that he signed his name Shakspeare (or Shakspere), which is how it appears on his birth, marriage, and funeral records. Eventually, the scholarly consensus went the other way and ‘Shakespeare’—how the name was spelled when his plays were first published—came into dominance.

Which raises some questions: If the author’s real name was Shakspeare, why was it ever spelled Shakespeare? If, instead, his real name was Shakespeare, why would he repeatedly misspell it when he signed his own name? I know, some of you are saying Elizabethan’s didn’t care much about spelling. Yes, that’s true, but only up to a point.

In the word Shakespeare, dropping the first ‘e’ gives a short vowel sound to the ‘a’ (like “shack”) rather than a long sound (like “shake”). I’ve yet to see multiple examples of Elizabethan text where the ‘a’ remains long when the ‘e’ that follows a consonant is dropped. Without the ‘e’ to make the long ‘a’ sound, a sentence such as “My mate will bake a cake” becomes “My mat will bak a cak.” Elizabethans may have been bad spellers, but their spelling wasn’t that bad—they didn’t write gibberish.

So why would William of Stratford not sign his name ‘Shakespeare,’ the way it’s spelled on the plays? One answer, plain and simple, is that he wasn’t Shakespeare; rather, ‘William Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym for the actual author.

The top candidate for the true Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, a nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Vere meets all the criteria for being the real Shakespeare. His life experiences closely match the stories, settings, and characters of the plays, and he was praised as a playwright during his lifetime. In a foreword to Charlton Ogburn’s book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough states: “The strange, difficult, contradictory man who emerges as the real Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is not just plausible but fascinating and wholly believable.”

Twain
Mark Twain seriously doubted that William of Stratford was Shakespeare.

McCullough isn’t alone. Many have come to doubt that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Mark Twain was such a doubter. In his last published book, Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909), Twain delivers, with humor, a cogent argument that the Stratfordian wasn’t the Bard.

Among other things, Twain observes that William of Stratford never signed his name ‘Shakespeare,’ so if he were the great author, he didn’t know how to spell his own name.

While the Folger exhibit is silent about why so many people, for so long, called the playwright Shakspeare, it does address Twain’s views on Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the exhibit sorely misses the mark.

Instead of addressing Twain’s argument about Shakespeare authorship on the merits, the exhibit belittles him by insinuating that he wasn’t serious in his disbelief that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare. Here’s how “America’s Shakespeare” puts it:

Mark Twain and his family read Shakespeare, and it has been said that he knew Shakespeare’s works “nearly as well as he knew the Bible.” Twain was fully aware how widely the English playwright was known in America. In Huckleberry Finn, he pokes fun at amateur productions of Shakespeare on the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, Twain came to question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. In his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain proposes that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare to state unconditionally that he wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. But is Clemens fooling with us, as he writes under his pseudonym Twain? It’s hard to know.

It’s hard to know—really? Actually, it’s not: Those familiar with Twain’s views on the subject know he was sincere in rejecting the myth that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Anthony J. Berret, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University and author of Mark Twain and Shakespeare, explains why. According to Berret, Twain thought writers drew their ideas from life experiences as Twain himself did, and there was little known about the Stratfordian’s life that could lead to the great works of Shakespeare. Berret writes:

Is Shakespeare Dead? is essentially a creative response to George Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908). Both Twain and Greenwood declare themselves heretics against the orthodox belief that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the poems and plays attributed to him. They argue their point by removing all the myths and superstitions about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life and finding in the few known facts that remain no sign or promise of a distinguished literary career. […] In his copy of Greenwood’s book Mark Twain scored the passages which recounted these meagre details about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life, and he included their contents in chapters III and IV of his own book. [footnote omitted]. He applauded Greenwood’s careful separation of these bare facts from all the conjectures and assumptions that turned [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare into a scholar, a traveler, a soldier, a poet, a classicist, and an aristocrat.

Berret spends 20 pages discussing Twain’s interest in the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Anyone who reads them will see that, contrary to the statement in the Folger exhibit, it’s not hard to know that Mark Twain truly thought that the Stratfordian wasn’t Shakespeare.

Obviously, the Folger has the right to defend the opinion that William of Stratford and Shakespeare were the same man. But it’s wrong for the Folger to question the seriousness of a dissenter who ranks as one of America’s best 19th century authors. That Is Shakespeare Dead? was written under a pseudonym is irrelevant to whether its author seriously doubted that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare, and it certainly doesn’t show that Twain was “fooling with us.”

Rather, it’s the Folger that’s fooling with us, which is unfortunate given the otherwise engaging and not-to-be-missed “America’s Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes (Part II)

The signature of "William Shakspere" from his will. None of the Stratfordian's surviving signatures are spelled "William Shakespeare."
The signature of “William Shakspere” from his will. None of the Stratfordian’s surviving signatures are spelled “William Shakespeare.”

Memes are units of culture — languages, religions, books, plays, and songs, to name just a few. These are ideas that “catch on” or “go viral” and get passed from one person to another.

That’s why Shakespeare is a meme. Having been replicated for more than four centuries, it’s still going strong.

A memeplex is a group of memes that help each other replicate. The Shakespeare memeplex thus includes the author’s name, the texts of his plays, particular characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff, particular lines such as “to be or not to be,” and everything else in the Shakespeare universe that people keep replicating.

Like genes, memes are not per se right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, in the memotic perspective, a meme is either successful, meaning it keeps getting replicated and passed onto others, or it’s unsuccessful, meaning it’s forgotten.

The Shakespeare memeplex is a particularly interesting because it has two main varieties. By far the most successful one is the Stratfordian memeplex, which assumes that William Shakspere of Stratford was William Shakespeare. The second most successful is the Oxfordian memeplex, which assumes that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.

My previous post gave two very different explanations for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. One explanation comes from the Stratfordian memeplex, the other from the Oxfordian memeplex. This post will use the same approach to explain why William of Stratford – who is William Shakespeare in the Stratfordian memeplex – signed his name “Shakspere” rather than “Shakespeare.”

If he were Shakespeare, why would William of Stratford sign his name differently?

We know with absolute certainty that Francois-Marie Arouet was Voltaire, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain, and Eric Blair was George Orwell. But we may never know beyond any reasonable doubt who was William Shakespeare. When it comes to proving the poet-playwright’s identity, the evidence is circumstantial, beginning with his name.

The idea that William Shakspere was William Shakespeare rests fundamentally on the circumstance that the two names are similar. As to why William of Stratford signed his name ‘Shakspere’ rather than ‘Shakespeare,’ the Stratfordian memeplex gives this explanation: Elizabethans didn’t care all that much about spelling. Let’s accept that as true. Other explanations, however, easily lead to the same result.

Imagine William of Stratford in 1593 gazing up after reading the dedication to Venus and Adonis, and telling the printer, “God’s blood, you spelt my name wrong! It’s Shakspere, not Shakespeare.”

“I thought it sounded better.”

“Wait, you are right. Do not alter it. Indeed, henceforth always print my name as Shakespeare.”

Or try this explanation: from the beginning of William’s meteoric rise to success, he first chose to go by Shakespeare, the Elizabethan equivalent of Joseph Conrad, whose real name was Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski. ‘Shakespeare’ has a better ring to it than ‘Shakspere.’

Or maybe William wanted the plausible deniability that came with signing his name Shakspere while his plays bore the name Shakespeare. One can see Lord Burghley, the Secretary to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England at the time, confronting William:

“As people do, they are talking about your play, Hamlet, and not just talking about it, but gossiping about it, which is worse than just talking about it, and they are not just gossiping about anything, but gossiping about me, as they see similarities between Polonious, one of the main characters in your play, and me, gossiping how both Polonious and I are windbags that never stop talking. How dare you mock me so in your play, Hamlet, and not just me as Polonious, but also Queen Elizabeth as Queen Gertrude, and you not only mock us, as I have said, but you kill us both to boot. Just who do you think you are?”

“You have the wrong man, Lord Burghley. I am not William Shakespeare the poet, I am William Shakspere the grain merchant. See for yourself – here’s the church record of my birth.”

In this scenario, William of Stratford is using “William Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, to protect himself as the writer of Hamlet, a play some scholars believe mocks both Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. This, too, explains why Shakspere did not sign his name Shakespeare.

The point here is that the Stratfordian explanation for why William of Stratford signed his name as Shakspere — no one really cared about spelling — is easy to vary. That makes it a bad explanation according to a test created by British physicist David Deutsch, which I described in my previous post. According to Deutsch, good explanations, unlike bad ones, are difficult to vary.

Step inside the Oxfordian memeplex and you’ll find a much simpler explanation as to why William of Stratford signed his name “Shakspere,” an explanation that’s difficult to vary which, applying Deutsch’s test, makes it a good explanation.

Here’s the Oxfordian explanation: William of Stratford signed his name as William Shakspere, and not as William Shakespeare, because he was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare. As do his surviving signatures, his name appears as Shakspere in birth, marriage, and funeral records.

Forgery laws existed in Elizabethan times. I would bet that the penalty for signing a name that was not yours, especially on a legal document, would cost you a finger or two, maybe your hand.

If, as in this case, the Oxfordian memeplex has a good explanation for something while the Stratfordian memeplex has a bad one, does that necessarily help Oxfordians in the battle of the Shakespeare memes? No. The ultimate winner is the memeplex that keeps getting replicated while the other fades away.

For any meme to survive, people must find it useful to replicate that meme. Though it provides a bad explanation for why gifts appear under Christmas trees, the myth of Santa Claus survives because people find it useful.

The battle of the Shakespeare memes, I believe, will come down to which Shakespeare memeplex people find most useful – Stratfordianism or Oxfordianism. And it may take a very long time for time to tell.

Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes (Part I)

A Rubens painting of a scene from "Titus Andronicus." Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?
A Rubens painting of a scene from “Titus Andronicus.” Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?

My favorite Hamlet quote is “…there is nothing either good or bad except thinking makes it so.” How true that is – I chuckle at Nabokov’s 1956 afterword to Lolita, in which he describes themes that “are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned,” including “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Fifty-seven years on, today’s dynamic culture (namely, Western Culture) would treat such themes as “bad” not on moral grounds, but because they’re boring.

I’ve begun to apply Hamlet’s insight to my own thinking. For instance, just what makes a “good” explanation good, and a “bad” explanation bad?  Why do I care? That explanation begins in 1995.

My father died while I was going through a divorce. The pain peaked at the funeral as I sat in the front row and the preacher lauded my parents’ long marriage then, looking in my direction, chided those who “crumple up marriages like paper and toss them into the garbage.” During that awful time, I took solace in a book called “The Physics of Immortality” by Frank Tipler, a physicist at Tulane University. His book impressed me, and I arranged to meet him in New Orleans.

“How do you deal with religious fundamentalists who dislike your book?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t even try talking with those people.”

It was easy to understand why. Tipler’s book, which includes a 100-page long “Appendix for Scientists,” argues that our descendants in the far, far future – and I mean really far, like a trillion years from now – will resurrect every human being that ever lived and (bonus!) their pets along with them. This allowed me to finally let go any thought of one day freeze-drying Sebastian and Viola. I also found it easier to follow John Lennon’s instructions to “imagine there’s no heaven,” since Tipler’s theory does not mean that heaven will never exist, it just doesn’t exist yet. Ditto for God. For Tipler, heaven is a technical problem that will only take a bit longer to solve than, say, world hunger.

Tipler’s far future sounds fantastic, sure, but who in 1956, or even 1995, could have imagined being able one day to order an IPOD from Amazon.com over the Internet that a robotic drone can deliver to you in an hour? Not even Ray Bradbury, I bet.

A lot of people, of course, howled at Tipler’s ideas. But one who didn’t was David Deutsch, the British physicist and pioneer of quantum computing. Deutsch found merit in Tipler’s cosmology that predicted the eventual collapse of the universe into a Big Crunch, which would allow its inhabitants to create a computer that resurrects everyone and their cats, dogs, and parakeets. Years later, Deutsch saw the evidence that our universe will expand forever and never collapse. He now rejects Tipler’s predictions, but circa 1995, he was on board the train to what Tipler called “The Omega Point.” So was I.

I’ve kept track about what Deutsch is up to. He gives great TED talks. His 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity analyzes the difference between good and bad explanations. With Hamlet’s line in mind, I began applying Deutsch’s analysis to Shakespeare, or more precisely, the Shakespeare authorship debate, which is a battle of memes.

A meme, a word created by Richard Dawkins, signifies a unit of culture and, like a gene, it can be replicated and passed on from one person to another. An example of a successful meme is the Beatles song Yesterday, which cover artists have replicated thousands of times.

Deutsch describes a “memeplex” as a group of related memes that facilitate each other’s replication. The Shakespeare “memeplex” would be the collection of Shakespeare-related memes – the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ his poems and plays, individual characters, and all those words and phrases created by Shakespeare which have been repeated billions of times, such as “bedroom” and “I have not slept one wink” – which go together when I forget my Melatonin.

The war that rages in the vast territory of Shakespeare is one between two, and in many ways opposite, Shakespeare memeplexes, each of which attempts to explain who Shakespeare, the man, actually was. Stratfordianism holds that a commoner with the first name William, and who signed his last name as Shakspere – the same way it appears in his birth, marriage, and funeral records – was the poet-playwright, William Shakespeare. Oxfordianism holds that Edward de Vere, a high nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, wrote under the name William Shakespeare, which appeared in print as Shake-speare, the hyphen signaling that it was a pseudonym.

So after reading Deutsch on good and bad explanations, I was filled with excitement, to use another word created by Shakespeare, and anxious to put the Shakespeare memeplexes to the physicist’s simple test: a bad explanation is one that is easy to vary while still accounting for what it purports to account for, while a good explanation is one that is hard to vary.

Deutsch gives the example of the Greek myth that explains winter. In that myth, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps and rapes Persephone, whose mother, Demeter, negotiates the terms of her daughter’s release. Persephone must marry Hades and return annually for a conjugal visit. Each year, when that time comes, Demeter becomes sad and makes the world cold.

Though the myth explains winter, Deutsch calls it a bad explanation because all its details are easy to vary with the same result. A Nordic myth, for instance, explains winter in terms of the fortunes of Feyr, the god of spring. The world is warm when he’s winning, cold when he’s losing. But Deutsch’s words here are better than mine:

The reason those myths are so easily variable is that their details are barely connected to the details of the phenomenon…Whenever a wide range of variant theories can account equally well for the phenomenon they are trying to explain, there is no reason to prefer one of them over the others, so advocating a particular one in preference to the others is irrational…That freedom to make drastic changes in those mythical explanations of seasons is the fundamental flaw in them.

The true explanation of seasons is based on the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. It is a good explanation – hard to vary – because all of its details play a functional role.

All of this got me to asking, why did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus? Are there better ways of spending my time? Probably.

It’s impossible to know what motivated Shakespeare to write Titus Andronicus. Trying to establish a person’s intent about anything is fraught with risk, even if you ask her why she ordered the crunchy grasshopper carrot cake and she happily tells you why. There’s only one person who can read your mind, and it’s not me. So the attempt to divine Shakespeare’s motives for writing Titus Andronicus – especially since nobody can ask him, given his death either in 1604 or 1616, depending on which Shakespeare memeplex you prefer – is a little like trying to understand why prehistoric cave dwellers in southern France painted pictures on their living room walls during their spare time.

Still, we can’t resist.

Stratfordians and Oxfordians give competing explanations for what prompted Shakespeare to write his first tragedy. The two camps loathe each other. Stratfordians launch ad hominem attacks against Oxfordians who, in turn, accuse Stratfordians of intellectual dishonesty.

Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck recently lambasted two Canadian universities for participating in a conference exploring Oxfordianism, publicly chastising York University Professor Don Rubin, an Oxfordian who teaches a course on the authorship question, for his “fringe views.” Oxfordians charge Stratfordians with a bias fed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and piles of money: millions of tourists have streamed through Stratford-upon-Avon to see where “William Shakespeare” was born, which Oxfordians equate with trekking to the North Pole to see where Santa Claus works.

Just think what would happen to Amazon.com’s sales if there were no Santa Claus – not even the myth – and how it would change the very idea of Christmas. Well, it would turn retail sales into a bloody disaster, which brings us back to Titus Andronicus.

In the Stratfordian memeplex, Shakespeare wrote his gory story of murder and mutilation, packed full with references to Ovid and Seneca, to match what others were writing at the time and showcase his learning. In 1949, Margaret Chute wrote this about Titus Andronicus: “Shakespeare was trying to write a ‘noble Roman history’ and conform to the best standards of the classical drama as they were understood in his day.” Fifteen years later, A.L. Rowse, in his biography of Shakespeare, explained that while Shakespeare was writing the play, “…his mind was filled with memories of his school-work…Titus is a well-constructed play on a tight and somewhat rigid scheme, for the craftsman is imitating someone else.”

One can imagine William entering London after days of riding on horseback from Stratford. He heads straight for The Mermaid Tavern and finds Christopher Marlowe at the bar. The two playwrights throw back sherry-sack and talk shop.

“So, Willie,” says Marlowe, “I wager you can’t come up with a conceit the groundlings could love more than The Spanish Tragedy.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

And so forth. This “To Prove Himself” explanation of why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus is easy to vary. Take Marlowe out of the picture and put William back in Stratford. Unlike most boys, he loved school and has stayed in touch with his teachers.

“Thanks for stopping by the old schoolhouse, Willie.”

“Nice to see you again, professor.”

“I caught Comedy of Errors when I was in London. Loved it – ever think about doing something a little different, old chap? You know, challenge yourself and give tragedy a go, along the lines of Seneca, for instance, with a good dose of Ovid?”

“What a wonderful idea.”

And so on. Or leave the other adults out of it and replace them with Willie’s first daughter, Susannah, who would have been around twelve at the time. Her father, being the intellectual, decides she must see more of the world, so he takes her to London. One afternoon, as they exit The Globe theatre, she says to him:

“O, I just loved The Spanish Tragedy, father. Why can’t you write a play like it?”

“Well…”

You could probably come up with a few of your own variations of this “To Prove Himself” explanation, or a few hundred. All you have to do is imagine – it’s easy if you try – which is why the “To Prove Himself” explanation is a bad one based on Deutsch’s definition.

It’s a different story when you enter the Oxfordian memeplex and assume that William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere’s pseudonym. Mark Anderson, one of de Vere’s recent biographers, explains that banishment plays an important role in the latter half of Titus Andronicus, which corresponds to “the shame and scandal” of de Vere’s exile from Queen Elizabeth’s court. Charles Beauclerk has a similar explanation, showing how the play reflects the disempowerment and brutal silencing of political adversaries. In short, de Vere alias Shakespeare wrote Titus to express his feelings about things that actually happened to him.

This “It Happened to Him” explanation is based on known facts about de Vere’s life and is thus difficult to vary. But the point here is not necessarily to come up with the singularly correct explanation for something, but to compare explanations in analytical terms of “good” or “bad,” which means that some explanations will be “better” than others.

The “It Happened to Him” explanation by itself does not prove that de Vere was Shakespeare, nor does the “To Prove Himself” explanation prove that William of Stratford was the great poet-playwright. But the first explanation happens to be the better one for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, in my neither good nor bad opinion.

Maybe my mind will change at the Omega Point, when I can ask him.

In the Shakespeare Authorship Debate, Stratfordians Should Drop the “Conspiracy” Charge

250px-Edward-de-Vere-1575
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Is he the subject of some “conspiracy theory”? The answer is no.

Those who defend the grain dealer from Stratford as the man who wrote Shakespeare – the so-called “Stratfordians” – have several labels for opposing schools of thought. One of them is “conspiracy theory.”

They should drop that label.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a strong proponent of the Stratfordian point of view, states on its website:

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has fired up a campaign to tackle head-on the conspiracy theories that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the true author of the plays which bear his name.” […] The authorship conspiracy is much ado about nothing.”

In protest to the 2011 film Anonymous, which depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true William Shakespeare, the Trust orchestrated a “cover-up” campaign to shroud signs bearing the Bard’s name. The Trust explained:

“The cover-up is part of a campaign by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to tackle the film’s conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a barely literate front man for the Earl of Oxford.”

However, in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, the “conspiracy theory” label is misplaced, except perhaps in a colloquial sense.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as follows:

“A combination or confederacy between two or more persons formed for the purpose of committing, by their joint efforts, some unlawful or criminal act, or some act which is lawful in itself, but becomes unlawful when done by the concerted act of the conspirators, or for the purpose of using some criminal or unlawful means to the commission of an act not in itself unlawful.”

As far as I know, it’s not a crime for an author to write under a pseudonym. During Elizabethan times, a nobleman writing plays for the public stage under his real name would have been frowned upon by his family and peers. Even now, just think how Prince Harry’s royal grandmother would react after reading a saucy “The Lass of Las Vegas” that he’d written under his real name. The prince might find himself a step closer to the throne.

Moreover, if “Oxfordians” have it right, the powers-that-be during Elizabethan times would have required Oxford to use a nom de plume, given some of the political messages conveyed by the plays.

Scholars, for instance, believe that Shakespeare based the character Polonious, the meddling, long-winded royal advisor in Hamlet, on Queen Elizabeth’s close confidant, Lord Burghley, and in the same play modeled the incestuous Queen Gertrude, who’s complicit in robbing Hamlet of the throne, after Elizabeth herself. The evil protagonist in Richard III is seen as mirroring Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, who succeeded him as the Queen’s Secretary.

Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law, Cecil his brother-in-law.

Charles Beauclerk’s “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom” cites more examples of how Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as political dramas reflecting contemporary events in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Oxford’s family, not to mention the Queen, thus would have good reason to want Oxford to use a pseudonym (“William Shakespeare”) and for everyone to stay silent about it. Given England’s accepted form of totalitarian rule at the time, few, if any of the cognazanti – probably not even Oxford/Shakespeare himself – would view the imposition of such silence as something unlawful, let alone as a “crime.” Ditto for the grain dealer acting as Oxford’s front man.

No crime, no unlawful means or purpose, no conspiracy, no “conspiracy theory.”

What Stratfordians really mean to say is that Oxfordians propose that there was a cover-up to hide Shakespeare’s true identity, which – forgive me for wanting to attach correct meanings to words – is different from a “conspiracy.” Only the act of concealing or hiding something in needed for a cover-up. Unlike conspiracy, no criminality or unlawful purpose is necessary. A pseudonym, by definition, is a type of cover-up.

Cover-up, yes. Conspiracy, no. Stratfordians should drop the “conspiracy” charge against their opponents.

In the History of Pseudonyms, “Shakespeare” Fits Right In

Romaine Gary aka Emile Ajar

Imagine – a talented but aging author decides one day to publish under a pseudonym. Only his wife and a few associates know his secret. His pseudonymous works enjoy such great success, he realizes he needs a front man to be his public face. So he recruits a younger man to embody his alter-ego, coaching him carefully, even scripting lines about the author’s “real life.” Everyone’s fooled.

If you think this scenario sounds like one addressed by the Shakespeare authorship question – which can be best succinctly stated as, “Did Edward de Vere write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare using William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon as his front man?” – you’re right, it does. It also happens to be the true story of French novelist Romaine Gary, the only person to win the prestigious Goncourt Prize twice, first as Romaine Gary and then as Emile Ajar. Gary enlisted his cousin, Paul Pavlowitch, to play Ajar, preparing him for meetings with his publisher, who was completely convinced by Pavlowitch’s performance. The ruse eventually unraveled when Gary revealed the affair in a novel in which he made Pavlowitch the narrator, a madman in a psychiatric ward who confesses to being Ajar. At that point, the real-life Pavlowitch decided his cooperation with Gary was over.

Carmela Ciuraru recounts Gary’s curious tale in her recent book, Nom de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. She gives case studies of eighteen writers that used pseudonyms or heteronyms, including (I’m using their pseudonyms) George Sand, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Isak Dinesen, and Christian Brulls.

Reading Ciuraru’s book, I identified four categories of reasons why authors use pseudonyms. The most prevalent, shared by at least seven of the eighteen authors she describes (which includes Gary/Ajar and the five named above), is that the pseudonym activates an alter ego, allowing the author to become a different “self” unshackled by the baggage attached to the real name. The other three reasons, distributed roughly among the additional eleven authors profiled by Ciuraru are: a way to avoid publishers’ discrimination against female authors (e.g. the Bronte sisters, and Marian Evans who wrote as George Eliot); a way to deny being the writer of controversial content (e.g., Dominique Aury, who wrote “The Story of O” as Pauline Reage); and a way to hide perceived shameful behavior or avoid displeasure of parents or peers (e.g., Henry York writing as Henry Green, and Eric Blair writing as George Orwell).

Ciuraru shows that a writer can have more than one reason to write pseudonymously. It struck me that Edward de Vere, if he did write as William Shakespeare, fits this profile with three of the four types of reasons.

First, as a poet acknowledged in his time as the best writer of comedy and known to have written plays, de Vere was a nobleman, whose peers frowned upon those who were associated with the theater and its low-life riff-raff. Reading Ciuraru’s book, it surprised me how, during Green’s and Orwell’s day, aristocratic disapproval of writing as a vocation strongly persisted.

Second, as shown in biographies about de Vere, much of the content of Shakespeare’s plays would have been controversial at the time, since many characters appear to mirror people in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, including Elizabeth herself. For example, the character Polonius, who’s slaughtered in Hamlet, is now widely viewed as an unflattering caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s secretary and the most powerful man in England at the time. Burghley was de Vere’s father-in-law, and they detested each other. Many think Queen Gertrude in Hamlet represents Queen Elizabeth, with whom de Vere had a rumored affair.

Finally, if Charles Beauclerk got things right in Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, William Shakespeare expressed de Vere’s other self – a bohemian artist who loved the creative writing process which allowed him to vent feelings he otherwise would have kept locked up. Beauclerk also presents a compelling argument why Shakespeare’s plays should be seen as “politically inflammatory works” written by a court insider.

What Ciuraru adds – even without addressing whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym – is the plausibility of an author attaching his pen name to another person, who then takes on the role of playing the author. To anyone who reads Nom de Plume, the idea of William Shakspere of Stratford playing “William Shakespeare” as a stand-in for de Vere shouldn’t sound crazy.

There’s strong evidence that “William Shakespeare” was somebody’s pseudonym. As Mark Anderson explains in Shakespeare by Another Name, many of the plays were published under the name “Shake-speare.” In Elizabethan times, use of a hyphen signaled a pseudonym. The one time a play (King Lear) showed the author’s name as “Shak-speare,” the next edition changed it back to “Shake-speare.”

The enigmatic Sonnets also were published under the name “Shake-speare.”

William of Stratford never signed his name as “Shakespeare,” but rather as “Shakspere.” His birth, family and burial records show the name as “Shakspere” or some variation of the short ‘a’ spelling (e.g., Shagspere). His will makes no mention of “Shakespeare” or the plays, or books, or anything else to suggest a writing life.

In contrast, the connections between de Vere’s life and the Shakespeare plays are so numerous, they read like his autobiography. Written in the first person, the Sonnets, too, paint an accurate portrait of de Vere, not Shakspere.

De Vere had the motive, opportunity and ability to use a pseudonym and employ Shakspere as his front man. And as Ciuraru shows, it is not unheard of for an author to use the name of a real person, or a derivative thereof, as a pseudonym. “George Sand” in part came from the last name of her close friend and collaborator, Jules Sandeau. “Shakespeare,” a close variation of Shakspere, would make Stratford Will even more believable as de Vere’s front man, and a good choice for a nobleman who was three-time champion of the tilt.

In the history of pseudonyms, such a hoax is not only curious, but also very plausible.

Review of Movie “Anonymous”

Bottom from Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night I saw Anonymous, the new movie about Shakespeare. It’s good. I give it a 3-star rating.

Set in 16th century London, Anonymous is visually stunning, and worth seeing for that reason alone.

I’m an “Oxfordian,” one who believes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote under the penname William Shakespeare. A growing number of scholars (including two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough) share that belief. In contrast, “Stratfordians” think the fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon (whose actual name was Will Shakspere, not Shakespeare) was the Bard.

The plot of Anonymous seizes upon the authorship question: who was William Shakespeare, the earl of Oxford using a pseudonym, or Will of Stratford-upon-Avon?

The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, and its screenwriter, John Orloff, are passionate Oxfordians. Anonymous thus takes one side in the debate, presenting the case for Oxford through a work of historical fiction.

I’ve written a 400-page historical novel called The Immortalizer, which is about Shakespeare.  I can therefore appreciate the challenges the makers of Anonymous faced in telling Oxford’s story.

Anonymous revolves around historical events taking place at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, incorporating a Shakespeare (Oxford) storyline. Such an approach is an enormous challenge due to the sheer volume of plot elements the story requires.

For starters, you’re dealing with at least three major spheres of action, each with its own set of characters: the Queen’s court and noblemen, the Globe theater and writers and players, and the residence of the main character, Oxford, who lives in seclusion. And what is Oxford doing? He’s writing and revising all those famous plays, long poems and Sonnets which reflect his life experiences. Lots of flashbacks are needed. Add in historical events, including the war England was waging in Ireland at the time, the failed rebellion that some of Elizabeth’s courtiers mounted, and the involvement of the Globe’s players in that rebellion, and you have more than just a lot going on. On top of all that, what should be the main event – showing what kind of person Oxford was (which, in short, was incredibly complex) – further complicates the task, making it the equivalent of climbing the Himalayas.

Anonymous has roughly two hours to pull it off. It succeeds.

At times, however, I felt like someone chugging a can of condensed milk. In particular, it troubled me how so many of the facts about Oxford’s life were distorted in the interest of compressing its richness to a length suitable for mass consumption.

For example, at the time depicted in the movie, Oxford wasn’t living with his first wife, Anne Cecil. She was dead. Several of Shakespeare’s plays deal with a man that falsely accuses a spouse, lover or fiancée of infidelity, only to find out he’s wrong after learning she’s dead. Oxford had a similar experience with Anne Cecil. Oxfordians believe that The Winter’s Tale, for instance, is one way Oxford apologized to her. But you won’t see such remorse in Anonymous. Instead, you’ll see Anne portrayed as Oxford’s harping wife who hates him for writing plays. By all accounts Anne Cecil had just the opposite character.

Other examples: Oxford was not stabbed in the leg by a fencing instructor hired to kill him, and Oxford did not kill someone standing behind a curtain reading his poems. At a much earlier time than shown in Anonymous, the uncle of a woman whom Oxford got pregnant fought Oxford in a duel, severely wounding him in the leg. Oxfordians believe Romeo and Juliet reflects this family feud. The person Oxford killed was not someone surreptitiously reading his poems, but a drunk cook. Personally, I see no direct connection between that experience and the scene of Polonius’ murder in Hamlet, though Anonymous tries to make one.

The Sonnets – the only time we hear Shakespeare talk about himself at length in the first person – in my view are given too little attention in the movie as a source to show Oxford’s thoughts and feelings. Moreover, there are so many major characters and so much going on (at moments I found it confusing), Oxford’s presence takes up perhaps only a quarter of the film’s length, when he should be the main event. One gets the sense the movie is more about Queen Elizabeth than about Oxford-Shakespeare.

Minor details? Perhaps. But there are so many liberties Anonymous takes with historical facts (those about the rebellion, for instance, are quite distorted) in order to squeeze everything into two hours, some might argue that the entire movie is bunk. In the end, however, it’s a matter of personal taste – certain people prefer more accuracy in historical fiction than others, and many likely have no problem with an artist that observes wide boundaries in the exercise of his artistic license.

One more thing. The name of Will from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakspere, not Shakespeare. As I’ve said here before (Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare), many Oxfordians dismiss this point as if it were some minor detail. It’s not, in my opinion. Given the good historical evidence showing why Oxford chose the pseudonym Shakespeare (or Shake-speare), it’s unfortunate that Anonymous just assumes that Will of Stratford’s name was “Shakespeare.” Conceding that point to Stratfordians is like handing one of your chess pieces to your opponent before the match even begins.

Anonymous is a good movie and worth seeing. Hopefully, it will encourage individuals to think for themselves in deciding the true identity of William Shakespeare.